Hit and Run Journalism in Kansas City

On May 4 in BLOG BIT, a regular feature at the top of the opinion page of The Kansas City Star (a McClatchy newspaper), editorial page columnist Barb Shelly writes:

The folks at the Concord Coalition, which advocates for deficit-reduction, were amused by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts' explanation for why he may not support an increase in the debt ceiling, after he voted to do so five times while George W. Bush was president. Said Roberts: "We really made an effort to get the debt down" in the Bush years. Noting that policies during that time added $7 trillion to the debt, the coalition dryly replied, "Should have tried harder."

Ms. Shelly's blog entry, "A little (revisionist) history from U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts," isn't much longer than its wood pulp version above, but the two deserve comment.

First, Sen. Roberts was not in the majority for the eight "Bush years." Not only did the Democrats capture both Houses of Congresses in 2006, Sen. Jim Jeffords defected from the GOP on May 24, 2001, giving control of the Senate to Democrats. So Sen. Roberts was in the majority for less than 4.5 years during the "Bush years."

(Just so everyone's on the same page, the "Bush years" would have been those years for which Bush could have signed a budget: FY 2002 through FY 2009, or Oct. 1, 2001 through Sep. 30, 2009.)

Second, when Republicans recaptured the Senate in 2002 and held it in 2004, Roberts and the GOP were, in fact, able to make a dent in the deficit, lowering it by $252 billion in three years to $160 billion in FY 2007 (Table 1.1). Also, the Democrats passed more than a trillion dollars of new spending almost immediately after taking office in 2009. Should that be counted in the "Bush years"?

Although Ms. Shelly does not include a link to the Concord source in her blog, I poked around and found it toward the bottom of this webpage:

Should Have Tried Harder: Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) recently explained his uncertainty about supporting an increase in the debt limit now after voting to do so five times during the George W. Bush administration: "We really made an effort to get the debt down" in the Bush years. According to a new Washington Post analysis, policies from President Bush's two terms in office have actually added more than $7 trillion to the debt.

This paragraph is what Shelly is referring to. Perhaps the reason she was even at the Concord website is because its first link is to a good article by her Star colleague Dave Helling: "There's no limit on hypocrisy when it comes to nation's debt."

Where Shelly messes up is in citing the second link, which takes one to an article by Lori Montgomery at the Washington Post, which is the source for this in Shelly's blog:

As the coalition noted, a new Washington Post analysis of Congressional Budget Office data determined that policies from Bush's eight years in office added more than $7 trillion to the debt. The Obama administration's policies so far have added $1.7 trillion.

As for this $1.7 trillion, anyone who even casually follows the news knows that this is far off the mark, as the 2011 deficit alone is estimated to be more than $1.6 trillion. Shelly asserts that among "the biggest budget-busters of the Bush era" were "the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." Yet, Montgomery herself states that the "Iraq and Afghanistan wars have added $1.3 trillion in new borrowing." Which is less than this year's deficit.

Another guy who has trouble with Ms. Montgomery's article is former director of the Congressional Budget Office Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who criticizes her article at NRO. (And Ms. Shelly might also benefit from reading this.)

It's weaseling to talk about policies from past administrations as being responsible for current deficits. If Obama continues Bush's policies, then Bush's policies are Obama's policies. When the Democrats had the filibuster-proof Senate, there was nothing to keep them from hiking tax rates, ending the wars, dropping Medicare Part D, and backing out anything else that Shelly deems the "biggest budget-busters."

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.
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